My doctor once said something that has stuck with me: “Hospitals are a bad place to be when you’re sick.”
What he meant is that hospitals are Petri dishes, filled with germs that want to make themselves at home in you.
These germs can be lethal. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) nearly 100,000 people die from hospital acquired infections. While you can’t always avoid a hospital stay, there are some of things you can do to protect yourself, or those you love. Here are 10 suggestions from RID, the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths:
1. Ask that hospital staff clean their hands before treating you, and ask visitors to clean their hands too. This is the single most important way to protect you in the hospital. If you’re worried about being too aggressive, just remember your life could be at stake. All caregivers should clean their hands before treating you. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are more effective at removing most bacteria than soap and water. Do not hesitate to say: “Excuse me, but there’s an alcohol dispenser right there. Would you mind using that before you touch me, so I can see it?” Don’t be falsely assured by gloves. If caregivers have pulled on gloves without cleaning their hands first, the gloves are already contaminated before they touch you.
2. Before your doctor uses a stethoscope, ask that the diaphragm (the flat surface) be wiped with alcohol. Stethoscopes are often contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus, the bacteria that causes staff infections.
3. If you need a “central line” catheter, ask your doctor about the benefits of one that is antibiotic-impregnated or silver-chlorhexidine coated to reduce infections.
4. If you need surgery, choose a surgeon with a low infection rate. Surgeons know their rate of infection for various procedures. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.
5. Beginning three to five days before surgery, shower or bathe daily with chlorhexidine soap. Various brands can be bought without a prescription. It will help remove any dangerous bacteria you may be carrying on your own skin.
6. Ask your surgeon to have you tested for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) at least one week before you come into the hospital. The test is simple, usually just a nasal swab. If you have it, extra precautions can be taken to protect you from infection.
7. Stop smoking well in advance of your surgery. Patients who smoke are three times as likely to develop a surgical site infection as nonsmokers, and have significantly slower recoveries and longer hospital stays. OK, maybe this is easier said than done, but won’t you be thrilled with the results?
8. Avoid a urinary tract catheter if possible. It is a common cause of infection. The tube allows urine to flow from your bladder out of your body. Catheters are sometimes used when busy hospital staff members are too busy to walk patients to the bathroom. If you have a catheter, ask your caregiver to remove it as soon as possible.
9. If you must have an IV, make sure that it’s inserted and removed under clean conditions and changed every 3 to 4 days. Your skin should be cleaned at the site of insertion, and the person treating you should be wearing clean gloves. Alert hospital staff immediately if any redness appears.
10. On the day of an operation, remind your doctor that you may need an antibiotic one hour before the first incision. For many types of surgery, a pre-surgical antibiotic is the standard of care, but it is often overlooked by busy hospital staff.
Ideally, you should choose a hospital with a low infection rate, although finding out this information can be nearly impossible. While many states collect data on infections that lead to serious injury or death, few publish this data.
Pennsylvania is one state that has begun publishing hospital infection rates. For a breakout of the best and worst infection rates in Pennsylvania, take a look at the Pennsylvania Department of Health 2009 Technical Report Healthcare Associated Infections (HAI) in Pennsylvania Hospitals, starting on page 23.
The Consumers Union provides an annual report card on hospitals in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, although they require a subscription to access the data.
Ultimately, you can have an impact on your safety by demanding that certain steps be taken. Don’t take no for an answer. It’s your health at stake.
If you believe that your hospital infection was caused by unsafe conditions in a hospital, you need to talk with an attorney. Call the medical malpractice attorneys at Lundy Law. We’ll let you know if you have a case.